Who’s ashamed of the work they do?

by Emrys Westacott

An old joke that is regularly rehashed goes something like this. A schoolteacher is asking a class of ten-year-olds what their parents do for a living. The children describe the work their mothers and fathers do as mail carriers, firefighters, librarians, electricians, cabinet makers, and so on, until it is little Sammy’s turn.

“So what does your dad do, Sammy?” asks the teacher.

“Er….he works as a male stripper at a BDSM sex joint.”

Teacher, flustered: “Oh! Really Sammy? He doesn’t strike me as the type….Is that really true?”

Sammy: “No, not really. The truth is he works for [Donald Trump] but I was too ashamed to say.”

Obviously, “Donald Trump” here is a placeholder for any political figure who one wishes to insult. But the joke raises an interesting question. What kind of work , if any, is shameful? And it also suggests a way of posing the question: viz. what kind of work might a child be ashamed to admit that their parents performed?  This is an interesting dinner table conversation topic.

Whether or not a certain line of work is shameful or honorable is, of course, culturally relative, varying greatly between places and over time. Farmers, soldiers, actors, dentists, prostitutes, pirates and priests have all been respected or despised in some society or other. Moneylending at interest was once a despised practice, held by Christian authorities to be sinful; but eventually the modern banker became an icon of boring respectability.

Among the more educated classes manual labour has often been despised, although that prejudice has weakened somewhat in modern times. Another category consists of unpopular jobs like public executioner, tax collector, or (more relevant to today) evictions marshal, that are viewed askance simply because, as Cicero puts it, they “come into collision with the ill will of men:”[1]

Some jobs can be a source of shame on account of being considered inappropriate, as when men or women do work traditionally confined to the opposite sex. In early 20th century China, for instance, textile manufacturers had difficulty recruiting women to work in their factories because, according to traditional norms, women only worked outside the home when absolutely necessary; so those who went to work in factories were stigmatized, as were their families.

Work that is either illegal or commonly considered immoral will also be thought shameful. It is possible, of course, within the relevant community, to be proud of one’s prowess as a pickpocket or internet hacker. Nevertheless, illegality or the moral disapprobation of one’s community are good reasons to keep quiet about what one does, or what members of one’s family do. And in many cases, that lack of openness is a fair indication that the work is viewed as shameful and, to a greater or less degree, is experienced as such.

Shame can arise when the nature of the work–either its ends or its means–contradicts the basic norms and values that one publicly endorses, or that one is assumed to endorse in virtue of belonging to a given community. A good indicator of this contradiction, at least in the case of work that is legal, is the use of euphemisms: so instead of prostitutes and pimps we have “escorts” and “escort agencies”; instead of torturer we have someone who specializes in “enhanced coercive interrogation.”

The anthropologist David Graeber popularized the term, “bullshit jobs”, and this points to another reason why someone might be ashamed of what they do for a living: namely, that they consider it useless. There appear to be many who take his view of their work. According to a 2015 YouGov poll in the UK, thirty-seven percent of those asked said that they thought their job did not make a meaningful contribution to the world.[2]

This belief may not, in itself, cause someone to feel deep shame. For one thing everyone recognizes the fact that people have to make a living as best they can. For another thing, the usefulness of work is not an all-or-nothing matter but occupies a spectrum, with curing childhood blindness at one end to designing rubrics for assessing departmental productivity at the other. Moreover, many people experience doubts about the ultimate value of their work. There are even philosophy professors, incredible though this might seem, who are familiar with the feeling. So “shame” may too strong a word to describe the inner discomfort a person might feel when explaining what they do to a roomful of civic heroes decorated for services to the nation. “Sheepishness” perhaps more accurately describes the feeling that, compared to others, one’s work lacks value, although sometimes that will be too mild. One of the people interviewed in Studs Terkel’s 1972 classic Working has this to say:

I can’t relax. ‘Cause when you ask a guy who’s fifty-eight years old, “What does a press agent do?” you force me to look back and see wat a wasted life I’ve had. My hopes, my aspirations–what I did with them. What being a press agent does to you. What have I wound up with? Rooms full of clippings.[3]

Whether or not a particular kind of work is worthwhile can be controversial, of course. There is certainly no shortage of candidates for the title of “product or service the world could most readily dispense with.” People have designed, manufactured, and marketed a banana slicer, a snowball maker, a ropeless skipping rope, a DVD rewinder, and a goldfish walker (a special trolley that holds a goldfish bowl).

But most “bullshit jobs” aren’t so interesting, and are even, one could argue, less valuable. True, “Goldfish Walker Sales Rep” sounds less impressive than “Regional Implementation Coordinator” or “Customer Operations Consultant.”[4] But there are people out there who get pleasure out of walking their goldfish using an appropriate device–and all things being equal, pleasure is good–whereas it’s highly doubtful that a mid-level bureaucrat who calls lots of meetings and requires underlings to compile efficiency reports thereby adds anything to the quantity of happiness in the world.

Finally, there is one source of shame that has sometimes been connected to work that at first will strike any modern reader as odd or even perverse, and that is when it stems from the fact that the work is done for money.  This will seem strange because, after all, virtually all jobs are done for pay. That’s the norm. Even highly paid professionals who are comfortably off and could manage without the income would probably down tools if they were asked to work for nothing. Yet a certain prejudice against those who demand or expect to be paid for some service, or at least for certain kinds of service, and will only do what they do if paid, was common, at least among the leisured elites, in ancient times, and traces of it persist today.

Thus, Aristotle holds that “all paid employments ….. absorb and degrade the mind.”[5] In a similar vein, Cicero bluntly states that “acting as a hired workman is a vulgar means of livelihood,”[6] since it makes the employee dependent on the employer, thereby reducing both his freedom and his social standing.

Today, young math whizzes and techies who use their smarts to make a quick fortune with a clever app or a start-up company are folk heroes. But back in Roman times, the poet Horace opined that anyone who starts thinking of mathematics as useful for mercenary purposes will have a sullied mind and hence be unable to write fine poetry.[7] In the second century BCE, a Roman lawyer even argued that the work a lawyer performs is so socially valuable that “it should not be dishonoured by acceptance of a fee.”[8] What can one say? Times change.

Today there is no shame in working for pay. At the same time, there are plenty of spheres in which people are reluctant to admit that money is a significant motivator, that the income and other financial benefits a job brings plays a significant role in their choice of profession and their commitment to it. No politician, for instance, ever says they are attracted by the decent salaries, excellent benefits, and likely opportunities to later cash in on their connections and public profile. Physicians who go into orthopedics or plastic surgery, two of the highest paid specialties, are unlikely to say that they were primarily attracted to the field by the prospect of annual compensation approaching half a million dollars.[9]

Interestingly, teaching philosophy is one of the first professions in which mercenary motives raised a few eyebrows. Plato contrasts his hero Socrates, the true philosopher who happily shared his wisdom for free, with sophists like Gorgias and Prodicus who demanded and received hefty sums for dispensing their wisdom.[10]Xenophon is even more scathing on this subject. In his Memorabilia, he writes,

Among us it is considered that there is a good and a shameful way to dispose of one’s beauty and wisdom. If a man sells his beauty to anyone who wants it, he is called a prostitute….And in the same way we call those who sell their wisdom to anyone who want it sophists, just as if they were prostitutes…[11]

The sophists themselves, of course, were no more ashamed of teaching for money than are philosophy professors today, although given how much more lucrative they found it, perhaps they should have been. Hippias, who was not one of the most sought after sophists, tells Socrates that he went to Sicily and “in a short time” made 150 minae. Now, a skilled workman back then made one drachma a day. Since one minae = 100 drachma, that means Hippias made 15,000 times what a skilled workman made in a day. In the US in 2020, the average daily rate for skilled work is around $128. So if I, a humble philosophy professor, was paid like Hippias for offering a couple of short-term philosophy courses I’d be banking around $128 x 15,000 = $1,920,000. Just saying.


[1] Cicero, Of Duties, 42.

[2] This poll is cited by Davic Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2018).

[3] Terkel, Working, p. 85

[4] Both these made-up job titles are derived from a Job Title Generator at https://www.bullshitjob.com/title/

[5] Aristotle, Politics, Book 7

[6] Cicero, Of Duties

[7] “O, when this cankering rust, this greed of gain,

Has touched the soul and wrought into its grain,

What hopes that poets will produce such lines

As cedar-oil embalms and cypress shrines?” Horace, The Art of Poetry

[8] Quoted in D.A. Russell, “Arts and Sciences in Ancient Education,” Greece & Rome, Vol. xxxvi, No. 2, Oct. 1989, 213-214.

[9] See “The highest-paid doctors (and the lowest) according to Medscape,” https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2019/04/11/physician-comp

[10] See, for instance, Hippias Major, 282c, and Apology, 33a.

[11] Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1.6.13.